Fumbling with the sheets and shifting from one position to another, my nightly battle ensues as I struggle with nightmares and restlessness; an aching in my back, a crick in my legs, the itch on my limbs that only seems to multiply. Every night I have the same horrifying dream of being devoured by a family—every night my nightmares are interrupted by the incessant sounds of the Coop. Noises, the snores of the women across from me, the snores from the girls bellow me, the creaking of that perpetually lose bolt on the door, the monotonous tick, tick, ticking of the clock above it—all of them invade the deepest crevices of my sleep.With a heavy sigh and a little grunt I nestle my head between metal and concrete and close my eyes once again, awaiting sleep—or more likely exhaustion—to greet me. I am met by neither as I am again awoken, this time by the pang of the door as it bursts open. A shrill cry is heard throughout the room as the lights flicker on; the Keepers are here.The Keepers are sinister birdlike creatures that oversee our imprisonment. They come in all forms, shapes and sizes but one thing remains the same of all of them: they resemble some type of distorted feathered creature.They have feathered heads and beaks, while their lower bodies—the only part of them that resembles a human—always remain covered with clothing.Every morning they unlock our cages and every afternoon, after lunch, they lock us back in. They slip a sharp claw into the slit where a keyhole should be and with a little click the hinged metal door creaks open and we’re free—only to be led to another prison in the form of a bathroom or a cafeteria. This Monday morning is different though. This Monday, instead of being led directly to the cafeteria for breakfast—as we usually are—the three Keepers, all female, stand in front of our cages and wait.One of the Keepers, with stark black feathers, a crimson red beak and slits where her yellow eyes stare up at us, unblinking and unmoving, peers almost unseeingly around the room. Another Keeper, with fiery feathers that curl inwards like a tulip and austere ebony eyes, stands ticking and twitching beside her peers. She screeches loudly, demanding for silence in the room among disquieted murmurs and irritable mumbling. The third Keeper just waits.Curious at what could possibly be taking place I abandon my futile attempts for sleep and crawl towards the commotion—well as close as I can get from the closed confines of my pen. Some of the other girls don’t even bother to move. Across from me I see that many of the older women, worn out from old age and weary from those delicate months of strain, remain unmoving, protected by their lush blankets, embraced by their velvety pillows. Unlike our side of the Coop, their pens were built for comfort. The pens are rectangular alcoves hallowed out into the concrete walls. They are carved completely along two opposing sides of the vast walls that enclose us, three rows of which are stacked atop one another. Rooms are separated by metal bars, on the left, the right, and in the front of the pen. Our side of the Coop leaves little room for movement. I can sit up without my head touching the roof, stretch out my arms without brushing the bars and stretch my legs halfway without them touching the bars either. It’s not the worst living space though it is, to be true, the only one I’ve ever lived in. It’s just a bit uncomfortable, especially when we’re sitting for hours on end without being able to stand up and stretch.Some of the girls go insane in the pens. Some of them are ushered out for screaming or crying or talking too much to themselves. Personally I think that only three things keep me from going insane; learning languages with my friend Maura, currently I’m studying Neb, the language most people on the outside speak—or so I am told, planning my escape, and seeing my little sister Roar. Curious by the Keepers behavior, I clutch the stern metal bars, pressing my nose against the cold metal as I peer down, wondering what their presence in the Coop could possibly mean.The yellow one screams for silence, its orange tongue stretching in and out. “Quiet!”The chorus of mumbles that ensued with the Keepers sudden arrival reaches a crescendo as more and more girls get up and inch towards the noise.“Quiet!” She bellows out again.The girls ignore her, turning to one another instead and discussing what could possibly be taking place. Likewise I turn—be it a bit reluctantly—to my neighbor and closest friend Maura, only a few years older than I, at 19, but wise beyond her age. Maura wasn’t born in the Coop like most of the girls—she was brought here.Everyone in the Coop is given an identification number after we’re born. The numbers is, at first, on plastic bracelets we wear as children, but when we turn eleven our number is tattooed on our wrists. My number, 29359, gleams dully on my right wrist, under the stark lights of the Coop; I was born in a world in which the greatest prospect for my future was to be sold to a rich family, to be pampered and dolled up before I’m devoured on a dinner plate. My future is death. My life is lived in preparation of that grim fate. Even though our numbers are well, impersonal, they do have a hint of history in them. The first and last two digits of our identification number indicate who our birth mother and father are respectively. Other girls in the Coop have the same last two digits as me. They’re my sisters. I see the resemblance in our facial features, the way their lips resemble mine, the way our noses slant in the same direction—yet none of them has the same first two digits as me, none of them but Roar. Roar and I both have birth marks on our wrists: mine is a crescent moon and Roar’s is a full one, we share the same first two digits, have similar looks and, most importantly—unlike my other siblings—Roar loves me unconditionally; she just wants my company, and I hers, and that’s what makes us so close. I don’t know if it’s our birth marks or our blood but we can also do things other girls can’t. I can think a fire into existence and Roar can heal wounds. It’s strange but it’s also another reason why we’re so close. When we’re eleven, the women in the pens also christen us new names, usually ones that describe our traits. I was named Nimble for my ability to evade the Keepers as they attempted—in vain—to place me in my pen. When I was twelve I went out of tradition and named Roar, “Roar” because she always used to pretend to be a lion and I thought the name was oh so clever. But it stuck and she hasn’t gone by anything else since. We’re close, very close, but it’s hard being a parent and a sibling at the same time. We’ve never had the guidance and love of a mother or father in our lives, not like Maura has, but we have each other. Maura was born outside of the Coop, outside of any of the Feeder Farms. She was born in one of the border regions a bit north from here with her mother and father, brother and sister, before she was captured by the Seekers, a faction of beings who catch humans and send them to the Coops for processing.Maura was fourteen when they brought her to our ranch. She came here belligerent and uncooperative having known the taste of freedom all her life. Hungry for information and a glimpse of freedom myself, the two of us quickly became friends and have been a headache to the ranch ever since.Maura and I’ve tried to escape on numerous occasions. We've gotten caught each time. Usually our punishments consist of more chores to do, smaller rations of food or, at worst, solitary confinement. But the worst punishment, the one that frightens us both, is having a talk with the Warden.When someone is taken to see the Warden they initially return unscathed—that is until, they disappear one night and are never seen again. No one knows where they go but there are rumors, rumors that they’ve been sent to the Packingtown District, a community filled with slaughterhouses where livestock is brought in alive and emerge as mere packaged meats. I fear Packingtown above all things.Maura turns to gaze at me as I poke her arm, vying for her attention.“Do you know what’s going on?” I ask in a quiet whisper, though it’s a bit hard to whisper in Krol, the language the Keepers taught my cluster when we were younger. Now days they’ve been teaching the children Neb, which I wished I’d been taught instead. Krol is such a harsh language with all its grunting and croaking. My throat always gets sore after I’ve spoken it too much. “No…just watch.” She answers in a hushed tone, peering determinedly at the sight below us. I nod and turn back to the Keepers. We sit in silence watching as the Keepers continue to pace around, calling for attention. When it seems the room will never be able to quench its restlessness, suddenly the door bursts open and in walks a tall, plum woman with olive skin and cold grey eyes; the Warden.The Warden wears a drab suit that fits firmly to her skin and has her hair pulled up in the tightest of buns, making her glasses rimmed eyes appear narrow and stern. I’ve seen her before—she comes in every other month to inspect the conditions of the Coop—but every time I’m surprise; she’s just like me, a human, yet there she is and here I am…it doesn’t seem right somehow.As she enters the room there is a sudden hush that vibrates along the colossal walls; this silence is somehow louder and more pervasive than the chorus of voices before. Everyone gazes down tensely at the scene before them, a shadow of dread cast above the room.She walks to the center of room, her heels clinking loudly in her wake, and stops to stare directly at our side. I tense as her eyes briefly meet mine before she turns her attention to the others below me. The Warden stares silently at us before she sighs and begins to speak. I don’t understand much of what she’s saying: she’s speaking Neb. I turn to Maura and ask her to translate. She does, quickly reciting everything the Warden says after each pause.“Good morning ladies.” Maura translates quietly as the Warden speaks. “You must all be surprised to see me here this morning. I don’t usually venture out my office in the middle of the month to observe the goings on of the Coop.”The Warden’s voice is an intimating boom, vibrating throughout the silent room. Her tone is rich and deep, cold and stern. She stands with her hands behind her back and begins to pace around, back and forth, back and forth, as she speaks at us, coldly glancing around from time to time. “But something has brought me here today that requires all of your attention.” The Warden pauses and Maura hurries to translate. “Today we have, on very short notice, been informed that our ranch will be inspected for sanitation, or any reported mistreatment of the livestock.”The Warden pauses and smiles stiffly at us. “That of course is not true. Our livestock are the healthiest and happiest in the region. We do not mistreat or misuse our livestock. I have said this over and over again to the agency but they will not be deterred; they will inspect the ranch, later this day in fact, meanwhile we will behave as we always do, treating you with the upmost care your breed is entitled to.” Maura rolls her eyes as she says ‘your breed’—as if the Warden isn’t one of us as well.“You will shower. You will be feed. You will exercise. And you will return to rest. This has been the routine at Armour and Company for hundreds of years and it will not change today.”The Warden pauses. “And I would just like to say, as a warning, that anyone who tries to…hamper our results during the inspection, either by acting erratically or creating havoc will immediately—” Maura gasps. “Be sent to Packingtown, where our other facilities are.” She repeats.My own shock mirrors hers. Packingtown—my worst fears realized. “We will not tolerate any bad behavior. Now that you are aware I hope you act accordingly.” Maura translates. As Maura speaks the Warden tells the Keepers, in Krol, to explain what she has just said to us. They do, reiterating, just more harshly, what the Warden had just said. When they finish speaking the Warden gives them a curt nod and turns sharply on her heel, marching out of the room. Immediately voices fill the room. The Keepers begin unlocking the bottom row of girls, getting ready to lead them to the showers. Maura and I turn to each other.“They’ll be sending everyone who tries to escape to Packingtown.” I say slowly, quietly, as if by speaking softly the idea won’t suddenly occur to the Warden herself. “…This will be our chance.” Maura utters, eyes wide and unseeing, as if she hadn’t heard what I had just said. You know, like a second ago? “They’ll be sending everyone who tries to escape to Packingtown.” I repeat again, hoping this vital information while reaffirm itself in her mind.“But this will be our chance!” Maura says, grinning wildly at me. For some reason my gut clenches. Whenever Maura gets that look in her eyes, you know that look of utter lunacy, something bad tends to happen.“Our chance to what? Get slaughtered before our thirtieth birthday?” I say sarcastically. “I think I’d rather not, you know hasten my own demise thank you very much.”Maura’s grin only widens at my satirical tone.“This is our chance to be free.” She says, undaunted.I stare grimly at her. Maura’s my friend…but she often gets a bit carried away with things.“We don’t have to do it now. We can do it next week.” I argue.“No.” Maura says, clenching her fists. “It has to be today. It has to be.” “Well then you can go by yourself.” I say, crossing my arms defensively. “I’m not risking my life for some vague, uncertain concept.” She stares quietly at me, her eyes probing and beseeching.“You don’t understand Nim.” Maura says softly. “Freedom is something worth dying for.”I stare at her. I don’t know if there is anything worth dying for really. I mean if you can’t experience it yourself then what’s the point? I try, to no avail, to explain that to Maura without coming off as a selfish coward. Maybe it’s the hope I have that someday I might be able to escape my fate or maybe I’m just clinging on to the shallow existence I lead, but I know one thing: I want to live, I want to exist.Maura is quiet for a few seconds, pondering what I’ve just said, finally though she speaks.“I understand what you mean. Life here is just so prudent, so substantial and death—it’s a mystery really.” She pauses and gestures around the room. “But I feel like you’re clinging on to any semblance of a life you can manage, even if it’s a miserable one.” She looks at me, and I mean right at me. “To live life without hope for anything better, either in your future or in your afterlife, to not have faith in anything other than yourself, in your own existence, now Nim, that’s something sad.”I don’t respond but Maura keeps taking, her voice rising with life, enthusiasm as she speaks.“I believe that there’s more to life than just being alive, you know? You have to…live. I can’t believe—I refuse to believe—that I was born on this earth for the purpose of being repressed by others. I refuse to believe that. I refuse to give them that power over me. I’ll fight—even if it means I’ll die trying—because in the end there’s a certain freedom in death, in the unknown.” She says resolutely.I just stare at her. I mean I see where she’s coming from—I guess?—but I just can’t convince myself that risking my life for a dream, some fanciful idea that has been planted in my mind, when the odds are so against me is worth it. “Well that’s cus you’ve seen it.” I argue, angry now for some reason: that she’s making promises, creating idol fancies in my mind that can’t possibly be true. “You’ve seen what freedom is like. How do I know it’s real?” I challenge. With that question Maura just shrugs and gives me a little smile. That’s reassuring.“You don’t.” She says softly. “You just…have faith.”I stare at her quietly. She’d be willing to risk it all just for the idea of something, something so intangible, so uncertain that at times I wonder if it’s just a figment of her imagination…Faith; I don’t know if I have that.I’ve only ever seen humans behind cages, under rule and under oppression. I mean, despite how much I dislike the world I live in, it’s the only one I know…even all the other times we’ve tried to escape—we were never really risking anything more than getting in a little bit of trouble. There was no substantial risk. Nothing lost nothing gained Maura always says. And…she’s right. There’s another world out there, outside of these stifling walls and confining cages, one that I’ve only dreamed about. For myself—for Roar. For Roar.I look at the bars around me, peer at the girls trapped behind them. And if I don’t take this chance, if I don’t try, then our future in this prison is sealed. I guess that’s what hope and faith are: a dream for a better future, a better life, a better tomorrow. I’m not sure if I have the faith—but I can’t just sit around and not act. I don’t know if faith is something you are born with or acquired. I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out. “Alright.” I finally concede. “I’ll try.” Maura’s eyes widen as a slow, exuberant smile forms on her face. Her smile says everything she wants to say: she has a plan.-----The inspectors came later that morning as we were eating breakfast. Everyone was surprised to see them walk into the cafeteria as we gulped down our oat meal and conversed over breakfast. I’d expected the inspectors to be a bunch of Wardens, stern and wary from old age, but what I didn’t expect is for one of them not to be human at all and the other two to be well, my age. Their leader was a towering, thin creature with gleaming read scales, a snout for a mouth, with claws for feet and arms. When it opened its mouth sharp, terrible rows of teeth jutted out from its red gums. I’d always imaged frightening creatures devouring me in my nightmares. I never thought I’d actually come face to face with one. Next to it was a girl with pale colored skin that contrasted from all the browns, coppers and reds you see in the Coop, a beak instead of a nose and a mouth, and wings instead of arms. She was like a more pungent hybrid of a Keeper and a human.The boy opposite the creature looked human enough, but you can never tell is what I’ve come to learn. He was similar to the young boys in the other Coop, where the males reside, as he had prominent bones and a strong build, the only difference being that he was taller than most of them and seemed more—I don’t know—purposeful or something… The inspectors walked around, talked to some people, examined the environment and scribbled down their observations on clipboards. For some reason—to impress the inspectors I guess—the Keepers opened the gates separating the males and females, which they only every do at the end of each month. Not only that, but after breakfast, instead of just leading us directly to our pens as usual, they let us take a walk. Maura said that’ll be our next chance; when they take us out to walk for dinner we’ll create a distraction and escape. I’m fine with this plan Maura’s concocted—that is until after lunch, when we are led outside for our walk and they take the young children inside. Then I start to freak out. “They’re not here! They’re not here!” I whisper frantically to Maura as we walk side by side, wandering in the direction of the hills a few yards away from the ranch, the Keepers eyeing us suspiciously as we proceed. “B-but we can’t back out now.” Maura replies anxiously. “This might be our only chance!”“But I can’t leave without my sister!” I protest. Biting her lip anxiously Maura peers around. “W-we’ll come back for her.” She says, unconvincingly. “We’ll come back for her Nim. I promise.” She repeats, more firmly.I stare at her, unsure. “…We’d better.” I say finally. Reluctantly I turn around and face the center of the ranch, where most of the people have gathered. With all the clarity I can manage I think of bright orange light, warm and dangerous; I think of fire. With a gush of air, as if I breathed life into the flames themselves, a fire starts. Someone yells “Fire!”. Immediately people begin screaming and running frantically in every direction. Maura and I don’t hesitate. We run straight for the hills. We run and run and run, our soft shoes digging deep into the soft ground, our lungs working harder than they’ve ever had to work before. I’m faster than Maura, my legs stretch out in long strides as we race towards the hills. Others, men and women from the Coop are also attempting to make their escape. They are pursued by the Keepers who pick them off, one after another. I look ahead, increasing my stride as I sprint forward. Ahead of me the hills loom, a few more minutes and I’ll be beyond the ranch, in the safety of their cover. A few more minutes and I’ll be free. I turn to look back once more and then I stop.“Nim! What are you doing?!” Maura shouts. She’s panting as she grabs my hand, urging me forward. I pull it out of her grip.“I can’t leave.” I gasp. “Not without my sister. Not without Roar.”Maura’s mouth parts in shock. Her gaze shifts back at the ranch and then towards the hills.“We’ll come back for her Nim. I promise.” She says. I shake my head knowing it isn’t true.“Go without me…I’ll find another way.” I say. Maura’s eyes widen and I look back; a Keeper is heading straight towards us.“Go ahead.” I urge. “Go.” Reluctantly Maura nods.“I expect to see you on the other side Nimble! You and Roar!” She calls before turning away and sprinting towards the hills. I fall as the Keeper tackles me. Up above is the evening star, shimmering and winking in approval. She dances above me, fearless and unbound. If what Maura believes is true—that there’s something after death—then if I should die now I’d like to awake as a star.-----Every night since I’ve been captured, rather than fighting my restlessness, I battle with sleep, fearful that one night they will take me. Thirty of us were captured, we have one sentence: to Packingtown.I hear the Keepers coming in like thieves night after night, slipping into pens and dragging people silently out. So I try with all my might, every night, to make sure sleep doesn’t catch me off guard.One such night, as I lay curled up in my pen, I hear the loud shuffling of footsteps and the doors creeping open. I keep my eyes closed and don’t move, feigning sleep.One by one I hear that distinct click as pen after pen is opened. Hushed voices whisper in the night, footsteps trailing in their wake, yet none of the girls scream. Click. I tense as the lock on my pen is opened. The bars screech loudly as they are pushed aside. I open my eyes as the Keeper reaches forward, surely to snatch me away into the night. But I will not sit still and be taken. Like Maura I will fight. Just as it reaches for me I strike at it, my fits connecting with flesh—not feathers? I gasp. Before me is the male inspector form the day of the escape. He rubs a hand irritably at his face—apparently my fist didn’t have much of an impact—says something in Neb that I don’t understand and points behind him. Uncertainly I peer past him and gasp: strangers, dressed in the mirroring dark red and black colors as he, are helping the girls in the Coop escape. Row by row, pen by pen they are being freed. Some rush out of their pens in fervent haste while others pause to pack their personal belongs. Yet to my surprise, some of them refuse to leave. Without anymore hesitation I follow the inspector as he leads me down the ladder. He gets off first and helps me down, but I don’t wait to thank him. I turn immediately and start running in the opposite direction of the exodus, where the children quarters are. I hear someone—the inspector?—shout “stop!”. I don’t. I keep running, pushing past the metal doors and into the stark white hallway. A siren starts. Red and white lights flash. People begin to scream.The doors to the children quarters are already ajar as I pass. People from the other quarters are among the children, pulling them out of bed and hurrying them out of the room. It’s difficult but I manage to find Roar among the chaos.“Nimble!” She cries when I reach her. “What’s gonin on?!”“We have to run!” I shout. “Come here Roar!” Roar runs into my arms and I pick her up.“Nimble.” She says, her eyes cloudy as tears threaten to fall. “They said you were going to Packingtown.” I smile and wipe her tears as they spill from her eyes.“I’m not. We’re leaving now.” I tell her.She clutches tightly to my neck as we push against the current of bodies. A hand grabs my arm and I spin around to once again face the inspector from before. He screams something at me and points behind him. I don’t understand what he says but it doesn’t matter: we duck, interrupted, by the sounds of guns firing.The shouts and screams are almost deafening. I smell the scorching sent of smoke; there’s a fire. I make as to leave but Roar stops me.“Follow him Nimble. He knows where to go.” She says. Roar says something to him and he nods, grasping my hand and pulling me deeper into the quarters. Reluctantly I let the inspector—which, looking at things now, he probably isn’t—lead us to another exit, in the far back corner of the room. We push past the door and are greeted by chilling bursts of wind. Shivering we run into the night time air, towards the swamps in the south rather than the hills of the north, where Maura had always said safety was. More people spill out the door and began to overtake us. They are followed by Keepers, some armed and some not.I’m panting and sweating before we even run halfway. Roar’s weight, despite how light she is, and my body, unused to so much running, are slowing me down. The boy notices. He reaches for Roar and, reluctantly, I let him carry her, running behind them as we race for the swamps. I run bare foot, my feet bruising against hard rocks and pebbles, but I don’t stop. I keep moving forward. I hear gunshots but I am not deterred. I must keep moving forward. Roar and the inspector are up ahead. She turns around and calls my name. She’s too late.I barely hear the gunshot before I’m on the ground. There is a burning pain in my body, a pain that is fighting against the strain in my lungs, in my heart. I spit out dirt and blood and struggle to get up. I can’t. Coughing, I turn so I am facing the sky.Blood curling screams of terror cut through the cold night like knives. My vision is blurry, from tears and dizziness. I see red and black, my last glimpse of life I think. I shut my eyes tightly then open them again. I see the stars above. They blink and glisten and dance in delight, ever happy, ever more. If I should die now I’d like to awake a star, unrestrained and undeterred, without the weight of the earth—the world—pulling me down. Free.
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